Thinking Citizen Blog — What Is the Lesson of China’s “Zero Covid” Policy? The Sparrow Analogy

Thinking Citizen Blog — Thursday is Health, Health Care, and Global Health Policy Day

Today’s Topic: What Is the Lesson of China’s “Zero Covid” Policy? The Sparrow Analogy

First, a warning. I have very, very little knowledge of what has been going in China over the last few years. I feel I should learn more and this post is part of my plan to do so. Today, excerpts from an article in the New York Times in which the author argues that “China’s Zero Covid mess proves autocracy hurts everyone.” Is this true? Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

THE 1958 ANTI-SPARROW CAMPAIGN ANALOGY — two billion dead sparrows and the Great Famine followed

1. “Long before the zero Covid policy,’ China had a ‘zero sparrow policy.”

2. “In the spring of 1958, the Chinese government mobilized the entire nation to exterminate sparrows, which Mao declared pests that destroyed crops.

3. “All over China, people banged on pots and pans, lit firecrackers and waved flags to prevent the birds from landing so they would fall and die from exhaustion. By one estimation, nearly two billion sparrows were killed nationwide within months.”

NB: The near extinction of sparrows led to insect infestations, which ruined crops and contributed to the Great Famine which starved tens of millions of Chinese to death in the next three years.”


1. “As the Omicron variant spreads, about 373 million people in 45 Chinese cities were under either full or partial lockdown…”

2. “These cities account for 26% of the China’s population and 40% of its economic output.”

3. “The approach has put hundreds of millions of lives on pause, sent tens of thousands to makeshift quarantine camps, and deprived many non-Covid patients of medical treatments.”

NB: “Even the moneyed class is facing food supply shortages. The head of a big retailer told me last week that she got requests from Shanghai-based chief executives. But there was little she could do under lockdown rules.”


1. “With limited access to information and no tools to hold the authority accountable, the vast majority of Chinese generally support whatever the government decides.”

2. “Many people on social media said Shanghai wasn’t strict enough in its lockdowns and quarantines.”

3. Is the anti-sparrow analogy a good one? or not?

NB: What are the numbers? Whose numbers do you trust? The official Covid death count in China is 5,000. The count in the US is roughly a million (with a population of 331 million versus 1.44 billion in China). Is the Chinese count grossly understated? The US overstated? If so, by how much?

FINAL QUESTION — What actual ratio of Covid deaths in China versus the US would warrant the conclusion that China’s policy was better or worse than that of the US? What other variables should be considered? Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the best Covid policy assessment algorithm of them all?

FOOTNOTE — The Three Images

1. Top: the Eurasian Tree Sparrow

2. Middle — the anti-sparrow campaign was part of a four pests campaign. The others were the mosquito, the rat, and the fly.

3. Bottom — children were encouraged to kill sparrows with sling shots.

China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Mess Proves Autocracy Hurts Everyone

The End Game of China’s Zero-Covid Policy Nightmare

How China’s zero-Covid policy is failing Shanghai

China’s Deepening Showdown with COVID-19

United States COVID — Coronavirus Statistics — Worldometer

Shanghai’s Low Covid Death Toll Revives Questions About China’s Numbers


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20


Please share the most interesting thing you learned in the last week related to health, health care or health care policy — the ethics, economics, politics, history…. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to health are or health care policy that the rest of us may have missed. Or just some random health-related fact that blew you away.

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your mind something really important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that matters.



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